Homeless Encampments Win Ground in Fight Against City Hall

by Tarig Robinson and Quinn McGarrigle
Featured image by Charl Folscher on Unsplash.

On June 10th, a segment of Philadelphia’s homeless population with the help of Philadelphia Housing Action established an encampment on Van Colln Memorial Field along the Parkway in Center City. Philadelphia Housing Action is a coalition established in winter of 2019 between three organizations: OccupyPHA, Workers Revolutionary Collective, and Black and Brown Worker Cooperative. Philly Housing Action is made up primarily of people who have formerly been homeless or institutionalized. The residents of the homeless encampments and Philadelphia Housing Action stated firmly in June that they would make that encampment a home for the residents and would not surrender it until housing was provided to all people in Philadelphia. For 108 days this first encampment on the Parkway, as well as another that was soon assembled beside Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters in North Philly, mounted an uncompromising struggle against police evictions, city sabotage, slander from the press, and reactionary intimidation. On September 26th, Philadelphia Housing Action and the encampments announced that they had reached a deal with the city for housing: City Hall and the Philadelphia Housing Authority agreed to hand over 65 houses to the encampments in the form of a community land trust. 

This number includes 15 houses that were occupied by unhoused residents of the encampments over the summer, as well as 50 new houses that will be transferred from Philadelphia Housing Authority to a community land trust. The tentative agreement was reached on the 25th and announced on the 26th. The city made these concessions under the condition that the encampments themselves will be dissolved. City Hall and the Philadelphia Housing Authority were frustrated with Philadelphia Housing Action’s public announcement of a successful deal, accusing the encampments of negotiating in bad faith. The Philadelphia Housing Authority released a statement on September 28th, saying “Announcement of a deal is entirely premature…the encampment leaders continuing to negotiate in the media and in the realm of public opinion demonstrates their lack of sincerity….We remain hopeful about reaching an amicable resolution on the encampment, this puts any deal in serious jeopardy.” City Hall was more cryptic, stating that “more details” would need to be worked out before a deal could be reached, especially in regards to the timeline for dissolving the encampments. 

As of Wednesday, October 7th, Camp Teddy, located outside of the PHA headquarters in the North Philly neighborhood of Sharswood, has been vacated. The timeline for both the transfer of the houses to a community land trust and the voluntary dissolution of Camp JTD (the encampment on the Parkway) is still being negotiated.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s claims that they seek an “amicable solution”, and their accusations that the encampments’ transparency demonstrates a “lack of sincerity” that puts “any deal in serious jeopardy” comes after the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Philadelphia Police Department, and City Hall collaborated in at least two attempts, on August 18th and September 9th, to carry out forceful evictions of the encampments. The August 18th eviction was delayed after the encampments filed a lawsuit against the evictions while the September 9th eviction failed after it was met with resistance from residents and supporters. These eviction attempts and the city’s claims to good faith negotiation were fundamentally dishonest and non-transparent, as they were done under the presumption that the demands for immediate housing were impossible, and included plans for police to overrun the camps in the very early morning when residents would be asleep and the media would not be there to record the destruction of the encampments.

Under the current deal (as it was reported by Philadelphia Housing Action), the 65 houses will initially be transferred from Philadelphia Housing Authority to Philadelphia Housing Action. Philadelphia Housing Action reports that their membership, drawn from across these three organizations, have all personally been homeless or institutionalized at some point. Philadelphia Housing Action has served as an invaluable organizing body in the defense of the encampments and the struggle for universal housing in Philadelphia, playing a variety of roles including but not limited to facilitation of camp residents’ decision-making meetings, assisting with conflict resolution when disagreements or tension have broken out, and providing a variety of legal advice relevant to encampment residents. A young camp resident named Indigo, who we spoke with extensively, reported that Philadelphia Housing Action has served as a reliable intermediary between the encampment residents and City Hall due to the city’s refusal to negotiate with the residents directly.

After the properties are transferred to Philadelphia Housing Action, they plan to form a community land trust that includes all of the housing and land received in the deal. A community land trust (CLT) is, at its most basic, a nonprofit organization that acquires titles to land and then attempts to serve as a mechanism through which people living within the CLT can make collective decisions about the use of land in their community. Though management and goals vary between CLTs, community land trusts have historically been established by black sharecroppers to resist eviction, displacement, and white supremacist terror in the rural south. They have recently seen a revival, and in Philadelphia, community land trusts play an important role in lowering housing costs and protecting poor residents from displacement due to gentrification. Like the direct action undertaken by unhoused people at the Camp JTD and Camp Teddy encampments, these CLT’s are expressions of the struggle of poor and working class people in Philadelphia —  a struggle not only against gentrification, displacement, and homelessness themselves, but against a system of governance and property law that reinforces the causes of their poverty while treating the poor and homeless as problems that need to be pushed out of the city, or at least off of valuable property. 

The residents of the encampments have publicly insisted that their fight is inseparable from broader struggles against racism and poverty. It has unfortunately become something of a vague cliche that struggles against oppression and exploitation are interconnected, so we will devote some space here to defending the residents’ claim that their particular fight for housing is one part of a larger struggle.

The Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services reports that in 2019 there were about 5,700 homeless people in Philadelphia. This data is difficult to gather, however, and undercounts should be assumed. A study done by the US Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Healthcare for Homeless People describes the methodological problems with getting accurate counts of homeless people: 

“Counting the homeless population is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear definition of homelessness, the mobility of the population, and the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals. In addition, homeless people are often reluctant to be interviewed, and many of them remain invisible even to the most diligent of researchers. There is no uniform method for counting the homeless, and very few good studies have been done.”

Project Home, a Philadelphia non-profit, draws on more specific statistics to outline the scale of homelessness in Philadelphia, especially on the utilization of emergency housing. While this cannot provide counts of the absolute number of homeless people at any given time, it does provide a better indication of the scale of homelessness, and the (often understated) continuum between housed poverty and homelessness. Project Home reports that “8,347 unduplicated people” accessed emergency shelters in the year preceding their 2019 study. Not all of these people were permanently homeless, and not all homeless people make use of emergency shelters (many actively avoid shelters and consider them more unsafe and less comfortable than the street) —  even if this number is too heavily skewed by a number of otherwise housed people using emergency shelters to be a reliable indicator of the overall scale of homelessness (unlikely considering this number does not include the many homeless people who do not use shelters), it certainly indicates widespread housing insecurity, if not technical homelessness, far beyond the 5,700 reported by the Office of Homeless Services. In the same report, Project Home discloses that 7,288 Philadelphia children and youth experienced homelessness at some point in the 2017-2018 school year. This means that, even when counting only children and youth, the group of people who experienced homelessness at some point in the 2017-2018 school year was 2,000 people larger than the Office of Homeless Services reported as the total number of homeless people for the year of 2019. Whether this is due to especially poor methodology, or some differences in the definition of homelessness, is not especially relevant —  the point is that many people are homeless, many people are in danger of homelessness at any given time, and many people move back and forth from housed to unhoused and unhoused to house. 

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America, with around one-fourth of the population living under the poverty line. The poverty line itself is a nationwide official metric that defines poverty as an annual income of $26,000 or less for a family of four. Their metric to determine poverty is based only on how many people live in a “household”, and whether the household as a whole makes $26,000 or less. We can use Philadelphia as an example of this metric’s methodological failures. 25% of Philadelphia’s population lives under the officially defined poverty line, but over half (54%) of Philadelphia residents pay more than 30% of their income on rent: at minimum wage, a Philadelphian would need to work at least 86 hours a week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment. 

This fails to represent the real scale and severity of economic hardship, and effectively disguises the fact that the lower half of working “middle income households” (defined based on this PewResearch metric as between roughly $29,000 and $86,000 a year, the lower half being roughly those “households” who make no less than $29k a year but no more than $50k a year) generally have more in common with those below the poverty line than they do with those making $200k a year or more. Income as a metric for determining poverty is at best severely limited, so knowing that around 37% of American households have an income of $50,000 a year or less, admittedly does not sketch a very useful picture of the way class functions in the United States. 

For any of these metrics to be meaningful, we would need to define and defend our use of these terms, cross reference annual income with regional cost of living, determine what portion of annual income is leftover after bare necessities like housing and medical bills are considered, take inflation into account, consider differences in taxation and government assistance, etc. While we have neither the space nor inclination to develop this here, we make the basic point to demonstrate the level of distortion in official US poverty statistics.

It is clear that a significant portion of Philadelphia’s housed population is in reasonable danger of homelessness, or at least some degree of housing insecurity. Over half the city spends more than 30% of their income on just having a place to live. In “normal” times, this should be considered a crisis. But with the Covid-19 pandemic spurring on a new eviction crisis, tens of millions of people are suddenly at immediate risk of eviction due to non-payment of rent or mortgage: the Aspen Institute reports that 28 million households, or 64 million people, are at risk of eviction due to loss of income during the ongoing crisis. 64 million people is 19.5% of the population of the United States in immediate danger of eviction due to inability to make housing payments. According to the US Census Bureau, using their (flawed in the ways described above) metric for determining those “below the poverty line,” 11.8% of the US population lived in poverty in 2018. If sudden inability to pay rent or mortgage has resulted in almost 20% of the US population being in immediate danger of eviction, the line between poverty and lower-middle class, and the line between poverty and homelessness, is much thinner and more fragile than one might think if their only point of reference was the census bureau and the American cultural distaste for admitting to hardship. And if admitting to hardships is frowned on, solidarity with others on the basis of those hardships is almost taboo. 

In the face of the economic, social, and political instabilities (and opportunities) that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic, the fight that the Philadelphia homeless encampments have mounted for housing cannot be understood as a fight that is restricted to Philadelphia or restricted to the issue of homelessness. The residents of the encampments and Philadelphia Housing Action understand that none of these issues can be separated. But, while they recognized the broader relevance of their fight, they still chose to take up a specific battle with specific demands. By navigating the line between what is technically possible in the short term (giving homeless people houses) and the broader social changes necessary to secure that possibility (the elimination of political institutions and property relations that only function through exploitation and exclusion), they were able to establish the possibility of the latter by struggling for the immediate human needs of the former in a situation in which those immediate human needs (immediate provision of houses for the houseless) was considered impossible.  When they accomplished what seemed impossible, opportunities opened up in every direction; the success of every uncompromising struggle against specific realities that are considered inevitable provides experience in how to successfully struggle against what is considered inevitable in the general status quo. 

The people of the encampments have a specific battle with clear, material demands. Their fight is not against some vague concept of homelessness but rather the people and institutions that keep people houseless. Landlords and banks and developers hold thousands of empty houses hostage while they sleep on the street. The Philadelphia Housing Authority auctions off the empty houses in their possession to developers while leaving them on a 13 year waitlist for a chance to get poor quality public housing. The cops assault and arrest houseless people, and  have been ready to tear up their tents and pantries and kitchens since the encampments were first established. City government does its best to preserve its own image in a time of protests, blaming the encampments for making it difficult to reach an “amicable solution”, all while issuing late night police evictions so that bystanders and the press don’t see when the cops teargas a homeless encampment, drag them across the ground in handcuffs, and destroy the homes they’ve built for themselves. Business owners call the cops on them for scaring away customers. Indignant neighbors demand something be done about the eyesore of their suffering. Cowards claim to have sympathy for the cause, but in the same breath have the audacity to lecture on the right ways to go about things. The “right ways” have been employed in Philadelphia through years of political lobbying, campaigns, and slow nonprofit provision of housing.  

The houses are there. They’re empty, and they can be inhabited. If they weren’t ready to be inhabited, people would be willing to repair them. If there were no houses, people would be willing to build them. The fight is not against a fact of life like gravity or aging, but against organized, human forces that prevent the homeless and those who fight beside them from inhabiting, repairing, and building homes. 

Even limited victories like this one have universal relevance. For months, the city told the encampments that it was simply impossible to give them housing. After 108 days of telling the encampments that it was impossible, 108 days of attempts at shallow symbolic gestures and failed violent evictions of the encampments, the city acquiesced and is offering housing to the people they were trying to evict from tents. They’re not offering enough housing for all the homeless people in the city, and they’re not being nearly transparent in their negotiations —  but after almost 4 months of insisting the direct demand for any amount of housing was impossible and unreasonable, they are now offering 65 houses as a compromise. Kenney and City Hall now claim that this is the kind of amicable solution they were hoping for all along! They can claim to have reached a compromise all they want, but the sequence of events is there for everyone to see: the encampments were established with the demand for immediate housing for all homeless people in the city, the city tried for over 3 months to evict them using whatever methods were available (police raids were planned for the very early morning on at least two occasions in hopes of encountering less resistance and avoiding media attention that could fuel subsequent protests —  one of these attempts was thwarted by a last minute injunction filed by the camps against the city, the other raid was deterred by a last minute rallying to defend), and then after more than 3 months of the encampments resisting eviction, the city agreed to hand over 65 houses to representatives of the encampments. This is not a total victory for the encampments, but it is an incredibly significant loss for the city. Of the list of the demands given by the encampments at their founding, the primary demand —  “The City must transfer ownership of…vacant property to a permanent community land trust for permanent low income housing administered by local community control committees.” —  is the demand under negotiation.

With their sound strategy, their courage in putting strategy into tactical practice, their uncompromising commitment to the fight, and the solidarity shown by support networks throughout the city, the encampments created possibility from the impossible. They were told it was impossible to give them any housing, they fought long and hard, utilizing a variety of tactics that never lapsed into premature false-compromise, and through this unrelenting struggle they won 65 homes. This is, of course, a compromise for the encampments, but a real compromise, that has yielded tangible gains. Another world is possible, and the world that exists was made to surrender just a little bit of Philadelphia over to the world that is possible. It’s incredibly significant, and it’s not nearly enough. 

Those who wish to support the ongoing efforts of the encampments and the various organizations that have supported them can contact Philadelphia Housing Action directly via their email philadelphiahousingaction@protonmail.com. Workers Revolutionary Collective can be contacted through their website and the contact info provided there. OccupyPHA can be contacted via their facebook page. Black and Brown Workers Cooperative also has a website that provides contact information. 

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